Barbera

I’m a Pacific Northwest wine girl.   Give me my Willamette Pinots and Walla Walla Syrahs all day long – they’re my woobie, my comfort zone, my home.  Outside of the United States, I have put a stake in the ground in France.  I’ve passed my French Wine Scholar exam, been inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, spent two weeks tasting in the French countryside, and stocked my wine fridge with more grower Champagne than I care to admit.

All of this brings me to Italy.

I don’t know much about Italian wines and I sure the hell am not comfortable with the ungodly number of DOCGs (74), DOCs (332) and IGTs (118). I mean, seriously, that is – to quote Hubs most eloquently – a “metric shit ton” of information for a single wine producing country. So to get me out of my comfort zone and expand my palate I took a deep breath and signed up for the Italian Wine Scholar exam.

Unlike the French Wine Scholar exam in which I was studying – for the most part –  regions and grapes I at least had some degree of comfort with, with the IWS I feel like I’m starting from scratch.  Sure, I know about Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – but Freisa or Bosco?  Truth be told, before the IWS course I’d never even heard of these grapes!  Thankfully the good folks at the Wine Scholar Guild graciously indicated “need-to-know” areas in the textbook so I’m not cramming my brain with minor details that won’t be on the exam. IWS know this

My primary reasons for pursuing the IWS certification are twofold: (1) learn more about Italy in preparation for my WSET Diploma (starts in May!); and (2) get out of my comfort zone and expand my palate.  I definitely tend to gravitate towards Syrah and Pinot Noir with regularity . . . too much so to be honest.  If I can discover a few other go-to wines during my IWS studies, that would make all of these outlines and flashcards worthwhile (I think).  Also, by almost every conceivable measure Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world – so, you know, I probably ought to be conversant about their grapes!

Fortunately, early on in my IWS studies I “re-discovered” Barbera which was a little like seeing an old friend on your first day at a new school.  I’ve had it several times before, but always socially, never as part of my academic pursuits, which I honestly think makes me appreciate it even more.  It’s a classic, “everybody loves a comeback” grape.

While Barbera’s exact origin is unknown, it’s believed to have existed in the Monferrato region of Piemonte (Northwest Italy) since the 7th century.  So essentially, about a thousand years before Cabernet Sauvignon came into being!  Currently, Italy is home to almost 85% of the world’s Barbera plantings with approximately 52,600 total acres.  To put this into perspective, Italy’s Barbera production is roughly equivalent to every single grape grown in the entire state of Washington (see “metric shit ton” reference above).

Barbera used to be produced en masse and hailed as “the people’s wine”, with much of it being – to quote Miles – “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” Over the past 20+ years, Barbera has had a dramatic upgrade in its image and is no longer constantly playing second (or third) fiddle to other Italian red varietals. Producers are planting Barbera on more prized vineyard sites. Yields are being kept in check by careful pruning. And finally, to balance its crazy high acidity and diminished tannic structure, more producers are opting to age Barbera in smaller oak barrels as opposed to the traditional large neutral casks. This often results in a wine that has a layer of spicy complexity, mellowed acidity and a delicious combination of lively red fruit with vanilla notes.

When I was visiting my Dad during the holidays, we went on our traditional wine-tasting afternoon in the Red Mountain AVA (which he is fortunate enough to live practically next door to).  While at one of our favorites, I noticed an older vintage of Barbera on their shelves.  Knowing that there’s less than 100 acres of this grape grown in the entire state, I was curious what my home state’s version of this wine would taste like compared to the Italian classic.  Here are my thoughts:

Kiona BarberaKiona Vineyards 2010 Barbera, Red Mountain, WA.  14.5% abv. Medium ruby-garnet colored.  The aromatics make me think of a delicate Cabernet – red currants and an almost vegetal note (I tend to get this with a lot of Red Mountain wines).  This seriously smells like our friend Paul’s bourbon soaked cherries that he gave us a few years ago and we haven’t actually tried yet because I’m afraid I’ll be on my lips after having just one!  Lots of secondary and tertiary aromas here as well – spice, charred oak, coffee, sandalwood.  The wine is medium bodied and acidity is definitely pushing high.  There’s a little bit of heat from the alcohol, noticeable but not overwhelming.

Cantina del Pino 2015 Barbera, Barbera d’Alba, Italy. 14.% abv. Color here runs a little more ruby-purple.  This wine smells pretty – roses, black raspberries and cherries, pomegranate, but the aromatics are not nearly as strong or complex as the Kiona.  On the palate, lots of the same juicy fruits with round/smooth tannins.  This wine is very straightforward – it’s tasty, but there’s just not a lot going onBarbera d'Alba.

While I enjoyed both, I surprised myself by preferring the Red Mountain Barbera over the classic Barbera d’Alba.  The d’Alba was simple – very sour fruit driven with not a whole lot else going on.  Nonetheless, both tasted delicious with my pizza!  Barbera pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods – tomato based dishes like pasta or pizza, BBQ chicken or charcuterie.

Try it out for yourself – and check out the outline on Barbera!

 

Valle d’Aosta

If diamonds are the prime example of the adage “good things come in small packages“, then Valle d’Aosta is a very close second.  The smallest wine region in Italy holds its own against its 19 regional counterparts (yes, even Barolo and Tuscany!).  Thanks in part to the presence of one very large mountain in the region, Valle d’Aosta’s unique climate and elevation produce flavors that are entirely distinguishable from others in this wine rich country.  Despite the comparison, if Hubs gets me a bottle of wine from Valle d’Aosta rather than a diamond for our upcoming 20th wedding anniversary, we’re going to have a very long talk.  

To start with, you’ll see a lot of French influence here which dates back to the 6th century when the region was conquered and became part of the Frankish Kingdom.  (Sidenote: Italy was continually getting its ass kicked back in those days by various invading barbaric tribes with, rather ironically, wussy sounding names like the Franks, Normans, & Lombards which sound like an accounting firm).  Today, Valle d’Aosta is bilingual – it’s the only French speaking Italian region and you’ll find several French varieties being grown here such as Pinot Noir and Gamay. 

Valle d’Aosta may be the smallest Italian region, but it contains Europe’s largest mountain – Monte Bianco (aka “Mont Blanc” as it’s known in French – which is also the name of an insanely expensive pen that your rich uncle gets you for graduating college but then you lose two weeks later when moving out of your crappy apartment…all hypothetically of course).  Monte Bianco not only adds to the gorgeous scenery of the area, but importantly blocks the clouds and provides a rainshadow effect to the region, making Valle d’Aosta drier and sunnier – and a better place for grapes to thrive.   

The majority of wine produced in Valle d’Aosta is high quality, DOC wine.  Co-operativesCork (a business arrangement in which a number of growers “pool” their grapes together) are prominent and account for approximately 75% of the production in the region.  However, an increasing number of growers have started to bottle their own wines and have banded together to form an association that helps them achieve this goal – often through use of shared machinery or equipment.  This association of independent growers is known as “Viticulteur Encaveur” – a term that appears on a wine label or cork produced by a member. 

Although many local grape varieties were lost to phylloxera, there are still ten unique and indigenous varieties grown in Valle d’Aosta including Prié Blanc, Fumin and Petit Rouge.  If you haven’t heard of any of these, you’re not alone – I hadn’t either until I started studying this region!

I recently tried a Prié Blanc produced from grapes grown in the highest elevation vineyard site in Europe (1,200 meters above sea level, or 3/4 of a mile up to us non-metric Americans).  Not many grape varieties can survive at this elevation, but neither can phylloxera . . . these vines are some of the very few in Italy that were entirely untouched by the pest. 

Label

Pavese 2015 Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, Valle d’Aosta, Italy. 12% abv.  Very pale lemon colored with bright aromatics of lemon, wet stone and a hint of white flowers.  On the palate – holy acidity I feel like I’m drinking Lemonhead candies.  Tons of lemon and minerality and electric acidity.  Overall, this wine is fairly simple, refreshing – but not overly complex or interesting. $35.

If you’re interested in learning more – here’s the outline on Valle d’Aosta!

 

Liguria

I recently started my Italian Wine Scholar studies and had a challenge choosing which region to tackle first.  Do I bite the bullet and knock out the behemoth Piemonte?  Start with the smallest (and possibly easiest) Valle d’Aosta?  Or, do I go for the only Northern Italy region that I’ve visited and hope the fact that I’ve been there makes the information easier to retain?

This last hypothesis made the most sense to me, so I chose Liguria.  We visited Cinque Terre in 2010, back when I knew a bit about wine, but was still a few years from getting serious about it.  And, unfortunately, I had not yet started to keep tasting notes or bottle shots so I can’t recall the specific wines I drank while I was there.   I do remember it was primarily (entirely?) white wine and it paired very well with the huge plate of pasta with pesto sauce that I wolfed down our first night in Manarola.

In reading about the region of Liguria, there is constant mention of the terraced, steep vineyards the hug the coastline.  I remember this vividly because (1) I have a picture of it, 🙂 and (2) I recall the insane uphill hike we had to do in town just to get to our hotel room.  Thankfully, we’d checked most of our luggage at the train station in Pisa so we arrived at Cinque Terre with only our bare necessities in backpack.  This move likely saved our marriage. 😉

Manarola
Terraced vineyards of Cinque Terre

Anyhoo – if simply walking the area is strenuous, I can only imagine how challenging harvesting the vineyards would be.  They’re gorgeous, but high-maintenance.  (Think Real Housewives of Cinque Terre.)

Since I’m doing the IWS on my own and don’t have the benefit of tastings in class, I went in search of purchasing a bunch of Northern Italian wines at one of the local wine stores.  M&S (or as I’ve started thinking of them: “Mute and Snobby”) has an awesome selection of international wines, but their lack of customer service is almost laughable.  Both times I’ve been in there I’ve barely been given a hello upon entering, and nobody has offered assistance.  Even after piling several expensive bottles on the counter – this garnered me a look and a nod, but that’s it.  No “great choice!  This wine is delicious!” or “I’m curious – what are you doing with all these Italian wines?”  I’ve heard and read that this “hands-off” approach is kinda their schtick, but it’s a very bizarre way to go about a retail business.  Shrug.

Anyhoo (again) – the only wine M&S had from the Liguria region was a Pigato.  I scooped it up and have been sipping on it the past couple of nights.  It’s growing on me:

Punta Crena “Vigneto Ca da Rena” Pigato 2014, Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Liguria, Italy.

Medium lemon-gold color.  Aromas of honeysuckle, beeswax, pear, yellow apple – with tons of salinity/sea spray and herbal notes.  Medium plus bodied (almost viscous, like Viogniers can be), with flavors similar to aromas plus a slightly bitter finish.  The wine is interesting, but I’m not sure how much I subjectively enjoy it.  Tastes like yellow fruit that’s been sprayed by the salty sea.  Was better this eve when paired with a crisp salad than on its own yesterday.

Liguria is one of the nine regions covered under the Northern IWS exam and after spending the past week on this area I’m confident that I’ll be able to nail the 0.08% of exam questions on this region. 😉

Here’s the outline on Liguria.


 

Soave

I recently found out that my first WSET Diploma Unit classes won’t be starting until May, 2018. This is totally fine, as it gives me plenty of time to prep . . . but maybe too much time. I can’t see immersing myself solely in all things viti and vini for six months.

I’ve decided I need something else to occupy my brain during this time as well – so I’m going to register for the Italian Wine Scholar certification thru the Wine Scholar Guild.

Italian wine scholar

I’m definitely not as confident about Italian wines as I am about French. I don’t drink a lot of Italian wines and when we visited the country in 2010, I was just beginning to have an interest in wine beyond California and Washington. If I’m going to successful in the WSET Diploma, I need to have a better grasp on Italian wine regions, the DOC/DOCG system, and all those obscure grapes that you don’t see much of outside of Italy!

So, I’ll likely be putting together several outlines in the upcoming months that are Italy-centric. I’m also going to try and teach an “Intro to Italy” class at my store sometime early next year . . . because I learn something best if I’m actually having to TEACH it to someone else. 🙂

I wouldn’t call Soave (or the grape it’s made from – Garganega) “obscure”, but it’s definitely not found much (if at all!) outside of Italy.  I’ve had some good Soave, but have yet to drink one that rocks my world.  Here’s the outline on Soave.